Steve Liskow  

On Writing: Living My Life in Plan B

The upside of getting lots of rejections is that you have lots of material you can rework. If you write, large chunks of you or life become works in progress, sometimes in the sixth draft, often changing in a second after stagnating for months.

My first published story, "Running On Empty," sat on a floppy disc for over two years because I hated my ending. When I finally found a better one, I rewrote the story and sent it out in about two days.

Another story gained nearly 20 rejections before I decided that too many characters appeared in the opening scene so readers had trouble keeping track of them. Trying to cut some of them made things even worse, and the story languished for three years until I heard about a novella contest and tried expanding the early scenes so those characters appeared more gradually.

It worked. When the story grew from 7000 to 16,000 words in three days, I knew the muse was finally taking my calls. "Stranglehold" won the Black Orchid Novella Award from the Wolfe Pack and saw print last summer. Plan B to the Max.

That success also caused me a major headache. I wrote the short story to follow the second novel in a series set in Detroit, but the series never sold. None of the names I gave the PI ever sounded right, so I kept changing them. The first novel-still unsold-has dozens of rejections under at least three titles and currently hibernates on a flash drive. Some day, I want to revise it into a stand alone.

Why a stand alone? Because another stand alone set in Connecticut got 70 rejections before I retired it. The protagonist was Zach Barnes, and I liked the name well enough to re-cycle it into the novella. When someone told me about a new publisher who wanted mysteries set in Connecticut, I changed the PI's name to Greg Nines (same rhythm as Zachary Barnes so I could do a global edit without having to change anything else) and sent it out again-with a new title.

Imagine my surprise when Who Wrote The Book of Death? found a home. Now imagine my even greater shock when reviewers and readers said they wanted to read more about Greg Nines. It means Zach Barnes-the name I liked-is now stuck in the unpublished limbo of Detroit.

I can't change his name back, so I'm working on Plan C: moving two of those proposed Detroit novels to Connecticut, where one of them actually looks like it will work better anyway.

I'll bet lots of other writers can tell the same story. Rejection doesn't have to mean "no." Sometimes, it just means "not yet," so never throw anything away. Stick it on a flash drive and give it a name you'll recognize next year. Trust me. Somewhere, you have the minor character, the great dialogue exchange, or the description of the crime scene that is perfect for your current WIP. Pull it out and drop it in.

Remember that short story with a new ending? A once loopy love story with a dozen rejections is now knocking on doors as a mystery. Somebody wanted a comic mystery with a particular theme, and this story had everything except a body count. So I killed the girlfriend instead of winning her. Another story had a title that gave away the ending. When I changed the title, it suggested a different ending that I liked even better.

If you're a writer, your whole life is a work in progress. Don't be afraid to keep making it better.


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